Sinfini Music DECEMBER 20, 2012 - by Paul Morley


The Sinking Of The Titanic is one hell of a place to start a piece of music. Composer Gavin Bryars took the modern world's most famous seafaring tragedy and turned it into revolutionary music that defies convention and never stops changing. In the second of his ongoing series, Paul Morley explores how.

Gavin Bryars's The Sinking Of The Titanic is a hell of a place to start - it's one of the great musical events of the twentieth century. It's a piece of imaginative documentary conceptual art presented as a beautifully evocative musical composition, as well as a kind of melancholy fantasy, conceived in 1969 as a provisional outline for improvisation within a certain framework, and developed over the next few years.

It was first recorded in 1975, in a version for small orchestra and tape, fitting onto one twenty-something-minute side of a vinyl album, with two additional versions featuring additional musical sources and choirs released in 1990 and 2007, eventually fitting onto one whole seventy-odd-minute compact disc.

Bryars was responding to stories that some of the musicians on the doomed Titanic were performing a hymn resembling Amazing Grace as the ship sank, and also to the details of the momentous voyage, other tunes the band had played during the journey, the initial collision, subsequent sinking, and the anguished search for survivors.

He uses music to reflect on that very music being played in the face of imminent death by those precariously placed on a gigantic, solid, mechanical structure noisily collapsing as it's swallowed by a raging, unforgiving ocean. He poetically wonders what happens to music when it is played under water, as it descends to the sea bed, drifting through splintered debris and subaquatic denseness, imagining and generating new acoustic qualities.

It is a graceful, elegantly understated work of art that turns sensation, experience, lost moments in time, the oceanic murkiness of history, the uncanny power of religious music, terror and nobility, fear and bravery, faith and oblivion into a ghostly, extreme example of how sound itself has a potentially immortal quality, either intensified or compromised when transformed into arranged music.

This eloquent composition, always intended to be open, has never settled down since it was first thought of. It has been performed and recalibrated numerous times in a variety of settings, expanding and contracting in length and consistency over the years, as if it is always being lapped by icy waves, surrounded by submerged perils, at the mercy of surreal elements. But it keeps travelling, through new realities, into different states of being.

Bryars develops new ways to capture the big and small, private and intimate sounds of those final, frantic, sea-stunned seconds, to process their disorientating historical immensity and desperate human strangeness. An end is postponed, reflecting the way that the Titanic musicians played under the most demanding of conditions to keep hope alive, and to embrace the inevitable in their own time.


He has reacted attentively and unsentimentally to the continuing commercial and cultural - and his own personal - interest in the sinking. Revelatory new pieces of research material and fresh discoveries invest the piece with greater detail, more essential inner truth, keeping alive and beating a work about death and loss. Music about memory adapts as new memories are revealed, and music reacting to history continues to unfold just as history unfolds, bursts of activity and speculation contrasting with periods of inactivity and consolidation.

This way of changing a composition, of introducing new elements, seems very much a hint of the future of music, where compositions do not need to be fixed, but instead are altered by new circumstances, forms of chance, communal mood and general environmental and emotional distortion.


The 1975 version of The Sinking Of The Titanic was originally released as the first in an edition of ten discs released on Brian Eno's Obscure Records, a series of experimental works that because of Eno - once of Roxy Music, with authentic, seductive pop-star credentials, and soon to be working in Berlin with Bowie - seemed as connected to playful pop glam as much as they did to the avant-garde frontiers of classical music.

Eno used the label he described as 'a research and development department' to distribute information and manifestos about the kind of music that had intrigued and inspired him as an artist as much as a (non-) musician. It was music, and thinking about music, that existed in some fluid, shadowy and alluring zone between what elsewhere was easily filed either as pop or classical. It set out to save intangible, problematic music from obscurity, and indeed rescued The Sinking Of The Titanic from sinking without trace.


This music encouraged Eno the most to make his impractical label dream a reality, which it became for a dreamlike three years, a cultured, studious counterpoint to the punk and post-punk music happening nearby, obliquely sharing its spirit of adventure and resistance. The label took its blissful leave with the gorgeous The Pavilion Of Dreams by Harold Budd.

For listeners at the time, those curious about what was out there beyond rock and pop, Obscure was an amazing place from which to start searching other musical spheres, inspiring a time slip into thoughtful, probing music by composers and theorists such as Bryars, Budd, Michael Nyman, John Cage and John Adams. Once you made it that far, and came across such inspiring and different approaches to composition and musical history, to what music was for, and how far it could go in rejecting cliché, creating surprise, and refreshing itself, it was easy to slip further and further out into wilder realms. It was an education, but was produced as though it was pleasure.

Brian Eno's own contribution to the series, Discreet Music, was a precise yet random, many-minuted sequence of treated, processed tones rather than a strict, propulsive parade of traditional notes naturally performed. It referred to and refined techniques and sounds from La Monte Young drone, Tony Conrad reiteration, Terry Riley ritualism, Miles purity and Steve Reich layered minimalism, but was recorded with a pop producer's ear for dynamics and atmosphere, and an enthusiast's knowledge of progressive-minded German electronic music. It became the official first stirrings of the ambient genre, so that what to some extent had risen out of classical music, and out of the tonal, speculative response of romantics to the abrasive confrontation of serialism and musique concrète, escaped such deadening classification, and generated new routes and positive hybrids.

The glowing Discreet Music was the most explicitly glamorous of the radiant Obscure 10, not just because it was highbrow pin-up Eno, of Roxy, Bowie's modern mentor, but because it was clearly predicting, with such force considering how delicate and non-committal it seemed, a whole new set of possibly endless musical futures. Bryars's record contained elements that meant it could be classified as ambient, or electronic, or even, in a post-Can, Faust and Neu! sense, experimental rock, but was really none of those. It was truly in a world of its own, and yet completely gripping, and for all its spectacular, spectral otherness, deeply accessible.

It didn't obviously suggest ways forward like Discreet Music, but didn't shut down possibilities - it would just take longer to work out, and to absorb, in terms of what it proposed about how to write a piece of music as a response to feelings, history, consciousness, spirit, technique and technical knowledge. Much of the multimedia sound art that now is more likely to be nominated for the Turner Prize than the Mercury is rooted in Bryars, with his roots in Cage and Cornelius Cardew, with their roots in Duchamp and Satie.


The Sinking Of The Titanic was so powerfully distinct, almost psychedelically anomalous, that it instantly emphasised that the label was no gimmick, no trivial rock-star indulgence. Obscure became a series of philosophical blueprints for what was to come in non-dance electronic music. Titanic continues to sound how music should sound as the twenty-first century unfolds, a century technologically over-sure of itself, but surrounded by unprecedented pressures, unexpected dramas and vast, undulating darkness requiring adaptive, indeterminate music that emerges out of and feeds back into the volatile transformation and fracturing of reality. (In this reality, the internet is either the ocean, or the iceberg, or both.)

It examines the most extraordinary circumstances at the centre of a bewildering, world-shaking catastrophe as a way of understanding what it is about music that can make it such enthralling, consoling and necessary company. It's a way of taking control in the middle of chaos and the unknown.